Allies? Accomplices? What does that mean?
“An ally will mostly engage in activism by standing with an individual or group in a marginalized community. An accomplice will focus more on dismantling the structures that oppress that individual or group—and such work will be directed by the stakeholders in the marginalized group.” - Colleen Clemens, for Teaching Tolerance
The word "accomplice" is a word that is used in social justice circles to describe people who are "accomplices" to our Black and Brown community members in their struggles for justice, in addition to being allies. Time and time again, people with marginalized identities (whether racial, gender, sexuality, or whatever) have encountered allies who speak of an intention to support them as full humans, but who fail to show up in meaningful ways when it is time for action. This can create disappointment, and people realize that in addition to those who would speak up and affirm support for their marginalized friends we need people who are willing to take action -- to change the way they act, shop, and live in order to help end racism and other forms of oppression.
Wait! I thought being an ally was a good thing?
It is! Allies are wonderful. Having people who believe that you are worthy of life and freedom and full rights is a good thing. Having accomplices -- people who are willing to take action along with you to dismantle racism even though that racism does not impact them personally -- is also necessary to end racist oppression. For these reasons, those deeply engaged in racial justice movement have begun making a distinction between allies and accomplices. There are many good articles out there about the idea of moving from ally to accomplice -- about taking your allyship out of the abstract and moving it into action and solidarity.
Colleen Clemens explains the distinction like this:
"For social justice advocates who use the term accomplice, they often see the site of focus as the main difference between the work of an ally and that of an accomplice. An ally will mostly engage in activism by standing with an individual or group in a marginalized community. An accomplice will focus more on dismantling the structures that oppress that individual or group—and such work will be directed by the stakeholders in the marginalized group. Simply, ally work focuses on individuals, and accomplice work focuses on the structures of decision-making agency."
Some things allies might do:
- Listen thoughtfully to your BIPoC friends and other friends with marginalized identities. Hold space without feeling a need to impose your own experience into their words or your understanding of their words. Listen. Learn. Your friends with marginalized identities are not there to educate you about their experiences (we have NCCASA trainings and staff support, as well as Google, for that!). So when they do trust you with their experiences, or take time to explain something you might have gotten wrong or not understood, listen with gratitude, and try hard not to take any critical feedback personally. We all have work to do.
- Find and explore good resources about racial equity, the history of racism in this country, other forms of marginalization, and relevant current events, and then share them with your friends, online and in person!
- Speak up when you hear racist or discriminatory comments, even when it feels scary to do so. People will often continue saying racist or discriminatory things because they assume the people they’re talking to agree with them based on an assumption that they aren’t part of the community being discussed. Letting them know those comments are inappropriate no matter who they’re speaking to is a big step as an ally. Similarly, receive feedback respectfully when you are the one who missteps.
- Show solidarity in ways you can -- participating in awareness campaigns online and in person.
- Be thoughtful about performative allyship -- “passive displays of support focused on one’s self rather than the community in question.” Allyship is important, but doing allyship that is focused on yourself or your kindness or “wokeness” slides down the slippery slope away from justice, and is part of the reason some social justice advocates value accomplices more highly than allyship.
Some things accomplices might do:
- When they have access to people in power in their communities in meetings and collaborations, such as government officials or major stakeholders, find ways to get people from the communities impacted by our policies to the table to provide leadership and guidance (not just opinions) on policies, programs, and projects.
- Partner with and pay culturally-specific programs and subject experts in grant applications and funding decisions.
- Invite and pay experts from impacted communities to review agency policies, and incorporate feedback into revising them to remove as many barriers to accessibility as possible.
- Seek out, use, and elevate curriculum, program models, and strategies that have come out of impacted communities, by and for the people the strategies address.
- Use their position and connections to support community-wide programs and practices to address systemic inequity.
These are just a few examples, but are you getting the idea?
Allies are important and essential. We need people who are willing to make statements and speak truth, especially when they are leaders in our communities.
Accomplices are also important and essential. We need people who are willing to make sacrifices and take action under the leadership of and in solidarity with communities impacted by racism and other forms of marginalization.
In every moment, each of us gets to decide whether or not to be an ally. And in every moment, each of us gets to choose whether or not to put our allyship into powerful practice and become accomplices. In alignment with social justice advocates and workers who believe in systemic, structural, and action-focused work to dismantle racist structures and systems, our NCCASA staff aspire to being both allies and accomplices to each other and to impacted communities, and to take action to earn those labels.